Metropolitan Opera House, New York, NY; June 9, 10, 2014

Jerry Hochman

Hee Seo as Cinderella.  Photo © Rosalie O'Connor

Hee Seo as Cinderella.
Photo © Rosalie O’Connor

The last time I saw Sir Frederick Ashton’s “Cinderella”, it was performed by The Royal Ballet during the 2004 Lincoln Center Festival. On that August day, I left the Met flying, having seen Alina Cojocaru deliver a fabulous performance, one that will linger forever in my memory. In my review, I didn’t write much about the ballet itself, except that it was great fun, that Anthony Dowell and Wayne Sleep were exceptionally hilarious as the ‘ugly step-sisters’, and that it must have been a wonderful tonic for post-war Britain when it premiered in 1948.

I’ve aged. And so has the ballet. Sir Frederick Ashton’s “Cinderella” now appears to me as a relic, a ballet that can be appreciated for what it was, but perhaps no longer for what it is. Maybe it was just the American Ballet Theater production – Monday’s performance was the company premiere, so perhaps it needs to steep a bit (and it did look better, overall, the next evening). And there were moments when the action perked up enough to be enjoyable. But most of the time I thought it not very funny (although I noticed that many of the older audience-members in my seating vicinity laughed merrily), not very magical, and totally devoid of any excitement. Worst of all, it looked fussy and prissy, and as if it had been preserved in aspic for years.

Perhaps I’m suffering from residual memories of Christopher Wheeldon’s “Cinderella,” which the San Francisco Ballet brought to New York last fall. While I found fault with certain aspects of the ballet, it was undeniably enchanting. Styles and sets and costumes and technique have changed since 1948, but it is what it is, and to me, this “Cinderella” can’t keep up with current sensibilities or expectations. In a nutshell, I described Mr. Wheeldon’s production as ‘not your mother’s “Cinderella”.’ The Ashton production is very much your mother’s “Cinderella”.

And it isn’t just a matter of technical advances since 1948. It’s also the choreography. Some of it (for Cinderella) is lovely, but much of it looks like an effort to update Petipa, with an attempt at modernity that now looks neither classic nor contemporary: it just looks dated. The ‘ballroom’ dances look starched, the “Fairy Godmother” and her subsidiary fairies bear too much of a choreographic resemblance (superficial I’ll grant, but still too obvious) to the fairies in “The Sleeping Beauty”, and it’s never clear enough whether it is supposed to be a fairy tale, or a fairy tale within a fairy tale. And while a fairy tale isn’t necessarily supposed to be ‘real,’ what’s on stage is more than ‘not real’ – it’s artificial.

There’s not much acting either. Cinderella is sweet and good-hearted with only two emotional faces: the Cinderella who dreams, and the Cinderella whose dream comes true. And the Prince is…princely. This ballet isn’t about falling in love; it’s about dreams coming true. But it isn’t a ‘dream’ the way, say, Alexei Ratmansky’s “The Nutcracker” is a dream of an ‘adult’ Clara seen through the eyes of Clara as a child; it is a particularly one-dimensional daydream grafted onto the nuts and bolts of the fairy tale. It has little texture, and no depth.

So why did I like the Royal performance I saw in 2004 as much as I did? Part of it was a certain comfort level that the Royal had with the production, to which ABT will adjust over time (much as it did with Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet”). But part of it is that Alina Cojocaru was dominant enough to overcome the music-hall bent of the ballet, in multiple ways – she acted the role and danced the role, and looked the part. She ‘was’ Cinderella; the two Cinderellas I saw were not. Although both performances had virtues, neither Hee Seo nor Julie Kent put the portrayals together as completely and as believably as Ms. Cojocaru did.

I’ll discuss Ms. Seo and Ms. Kent’s performances shortly. Initially, however, there were many others spread over the two evenings that were noteworthy.

Roman Zhurbin and Craig Salstein as the Stepsisters in 'Cinderella'.  Photo © Rosalie O'Connor

Roman Zhurbin and Craig Salstein as the Stepsisters in ‘Cinderella’.
Photo © Rosalie O’Connor

The role of the Jester is not a part of the fairy tale. Although I don’t know its specific genesis here, I suspect it was created to provide a diversion. Since he has no real subject matter function, his presence is intended to fill a choreographic void – to keep at least some action moving at a rapid pace; to loosen things up. And this the Jester does, in the way jesters are supposed to do: he jumps a lot; runs around the stage a lot; interjects himself into the action while still appearing to be a creature of the stage perimeters; and reacts to what’s happening without risking losing his head. And this is the way I’ve seen jesters portrayed in Ashton’s “Cinderella” previously.

But at the opening night performance, Luis Ribagorda danced it differently. He was not only your ‘typical’ wild and crazy hyperactive court functionary with the silly-looking costume who everyone sees but ignores. His Jester had an independent presence; a layer of androgynous decadence – as if he had auditioned for the Emcee role in “Cabaret”, didn’t get the part, but carried the Joel Grey/Alan Cumming “Cabaret” personality to his day job as a court jester. And this Jester knew something the rest of us didn’t; he had a secret he wouldn’t tell.

The difference in this Jester wasn’t in Mr. Ribagorda’s execution – the steps were the same as those danced by others, and perhaps were executed with slightly more clarity by Craig Salstein on Tuesday – but Mr. Ribagorda’s portrayal was startling: he made the role different, and made it stand out. And it was completely consistent with the somewhat dark undercurrents in the Prokofiev score and the original story. I don’t know if this was an intentionally different interpretation, or just the way Mr. Ribagorda expresses himself naturally – to my knowledge, this was his first significant featured role (at least with ABT), and consequently I don’t have a performance-personality base-line. But in his minor ‘featured’ roles in ABT’s “The Nutcracker” this past winter, I observed that he added a different dimension to those roles as well, and made them stand out. So I’d bet that what he brought to his Jester he did intentionally. However it got there, it worked.

Notwithstanding their similarity to the Lilac Fairy and her cohorts in Petipa’s “The Sleeping Beauty”, the ‘Fairy Godmother’ and her associate fairies have the most interesting choreography to dance aside from Cinderella’s pas de deux with the Prince in Act II. Veronika Part looked out of place as the “Fairy Godmother” on Monday, as if she didn’t know where to put the accents, or how to play her character. As a result, her performance registered as somewhat unfocused. But on Tuesday, Stella Abrera danced superbly, on the mark in every respect and nailing both the choreographic exclamation points and the fairy godmotherly attitude.

On Monday, the first of the secondary fairies, the Fairy Spring, was danced by Skylar Brandt, who single-handedly brought the performance, which had been moribund until that point, to life. I thought she was exciting to watch, animated, and engaging. She was spring sunshine. And then Sarah Lane took over the role on Tuesday and put on a demonstration of spectacular execution that made Ms. Brandt’s portrayal, as good as it was, look flyaway. Ms. Lane’s portrayal was flawless and classic, and, like Ms. Abrera, made the choreographic point expertly. And for a character without any human character, she danced a character. She was a spring breeze that didn’t so much overwrite the memory of a bad winter as it made you forget there had been a winter.

As the Fairy Summer, Yuriko Kajiya on Monday was quiet and calm and sultry; Isabella Boyslton on Tuesday danced the steps right, but her upper-body looked somewhat ginched, so she didn’t dance with Ms. Kajiya’s expansiveness and warmth. Autumn is a season of complexity. On Tuesday, Misty Copeland danced the Fairy Autumn energetically, like a gust of wind blowing leaves off trees. But as exuberant as it was, it was only that. On Monday in the same role, Christine Shevchenko (a member of the corps, still) danced the same role, but brought with it appropriately varied texture and nuance that made it significantly more interesting. And as the Fairy Winter, Melanie Hamrick executed Ashton’s somewhat distant and imperious personification of the season very well on Monday, but on Tuesday, April Giangeruso’s portrayal was a major surprise (at least to me). Heretofore I had only noted her fine job as one of the ‘harem girls’ in “The Nutcracker”, but as the Fairy Winter she dominated, with a secure, polished, icy execution that was utterly compassionless, and made you wary of winter’s return. I had not seen Ms. Giangeruso dance a solo featured role previously, and her performance was frosty dynamite.

In this production, the ugly stepsisters share equal ‘stage’ billing with Cinderella, and are more attention-getters than she is. The roles were originally performed by the choreographer and Sir Robert Helpmann, both British ballet legends, and consequently one would expect these roles to be more than walk-ons – perhaps for Brits in 1948, their performing presence was the equivalent of ballet comfort food. But seeing the production now, these characters are comedically overbearing, and they steal much of Cinderella’s limelight. Roman Zhurbin, as the ‘dominant’, bossy stepsister and Mr. Salstein as the ‘recessive’, shy one, were delightfully hilarious (the dancers are so heavily made-up and busily costumed that it’s difficult to tell them apart on stage). The roles were assumed by Thomas Forster and Kenneth Easter on Tuesday. Both pairs danced the roles with little embellishment to the original, and performed the roles well. I preferred the Salstein/Zhurbin pairing, partly because I could see Mr. Salstein’s characteristic, and Mr. Zhurbin’s uncharacteristic, humor a bit more clearly.

As Cinderella’s Prince on Monday, James Whiteside was…princely. He did a fine job looking noble, executing the few bravura steps that Ashton’s choreography allows, and partnering. But his character is cardboard, and, so was he. The only variation in his personality was his disgust with the ugly stepsisters, which is programmed into the choreography. Last night, Marcelo Gomes took the role to another level – as he always does. He not only executed in a princely fashion – he added that characteristic twinkle in his eye that let the audience know that even though he was dancing the steps and making his ballerina look good, he knew this was a fairy tale and that his character was an imaginary Prince. From the moment he zoomed onto the stage, he wasn’t real: he was a pumped-up super-prince. His entry pose (‘Look at me; I’m The Prince; I’m everything the guidebook says a Prince should be’) was intentionally self-deprecating, intentionally inflated, and priceless: Very different from Mr. Whiteside’s more serious take, and much more fun.

Julie Kent, Marcelo Gomes and Company in ABT's 'Cinderella'. Photo © Gene Schiavone

Julie Kent, Marcelo Gomes and Company in ABT’s ‘Cinderella’.
Photo © Gene Schiavone

But if the portrayal of Cinderella doesn’t work completely, as it did in the performance I saw ten years ago with Ms. Cojocaru, the entire ballet suffers. The performances by Ms. Seo on Monday and Ms. Kent on Tuesday were both admirable, but each lacked the completeness that Ms. Cojocaru brought to the role. Ms. Kent has been dancing Cinderella in various production incarnations for at least 18 years. Even if the specific choreography changes with the production, she’s got the characterization down pat. She deserves praise for delivering a quality performance technically, and a credible one emotionally. Indeed, Ms. Kent can still act a youngish Cinderella. But, although she danced Ashton’s steps well, her execution lacked the complexity and speed I recall seeing from other Ashton Cinderellas (not just Ms. Cojocaru). More importantly, to me her portrayal looked forced – perhaps because I’ve seen it the same way in so many incarnations before (even in different roles), and in part because, through binoculars, she looked more mature than her step-sisters.

I expected more from Ms. Seo, but got less. I have admired her acting ability in previous roles (most significantly, in “Onegin” over the past two Met seasons). And she has the potential to be a credible Cinderella – she’s youthfully lovely, and there’s something particularly and naturally ingratiating and endearing about her stage persona. But in Monday’s performance, it didn’t gel. She danced the steps well, but not exceptionally or memorably, and her characterization was more understated than it should have been. Hers was a low decibel level, under-energized Cinderella; she never glowed.

To me, a successful portrayal of Cinderella, and consequently a successful performance of “Cinderella,” requires execution that can deliver the Ashton choreography – the quicksilver turns in particular – to the fullest extent. And of equal importance, it requires a Cinderella that does not only reflect light, but can generate it on her own. And it requires a Cinderella who can be naturally believable. ABT has at least one dancer who could, at least on paper, have fulfilled all those requirements. She was sitting in the audience watching Monday’s performance, and danced the Fairy Spring on Tuesday. Once again, ABT has let another golden casting opportunity pass it by.